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Trump, Gottemoeller, and U.S.-Russia Relations

Daniel DePetris is puzzled by the Trump team’s push to remove Rose Gottemoeller from her position as NATO Deputy Secretary General:

At first glance, the story doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. If Gottemoeller is described by Republicans as going too easy on the Russians throughout her career, why would Trump want NATO’s leadership to fire her? We still don’t know a whole lot about Trump’s foreign policy other than his viewing unpredictability as a virtue, but there is one thing we do know — Trump wants to improve bilateral U.S.-Russia relations. Gottemoeller would be able to assist the president-elect in doing just that in her spot as the second most powerful post in NATO. Requesting her termination would be about as smart for Trump as it would be for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to ask the Russians to stop supporting him militarily. In other words, it wouldn’t be smart at all.

DePetris thinks that the push to remove Gottemoeller is an example of the incoming administration “feeling its oats” by trying to pressure NATO to do what it wants. That’s possible, but there might be more to this than that. There are a few other possible explanations for why the Trump team wants to do this, but none of them is all that encouraging. The first is that they see Gottemoeller simply as a former Obama administration official, and for partisan reasons want to remove her. Another could be that trying to remove her is an attempt to appease Russia hawks. That wouldn’t work and it would be a short-sighted way to pursue improved relations with Moscow in any case, but that might very well be the real reason. The original report suggests that it may be a combination of partisanship and hawkish dislike of Gottemoeller:

The move against Gottemoeller is not so much about Trump’s positions on NATO as it is about long-standing complaints by Republican members of Congress and conservative arms control officials about Gottemoeller herself.

Another related explanation might be that Gottemoeller is closely identified with a major diplomatic success under Obama (i.e., New START) and Trump takes it as a given that any agreements that were made under Obama were bad ones, so the very thing that should make her a good fit with Trump’s supposed Russia agenda makes her unacceptable to him. Finally, it could just be that the Trump team has no coherent plan for how to improve relations with Russia, and they are proceeding haphazardly with no clear ideas on what they want to do.

If this effort to remove her is successful, it is not certain that an American will take her place:

If Gottemoeller decides to step aside, there’s no guarantee an American would be chosen to replace her. Trump would be able to nominate someone for the job, but other countries would nominate their citizens as well. The United States might lose its highest-ranking official in NATO.

There doesn’t seem to be any advantage gained in trying to force Gottemoeller out, and if the attempt is successful it would deprive Trump of a capable official at NATO who has successfully negotiated with Russia in the past. At the very least, it does nothing to help repair U.S.-Russian relations, and suggests that Trump’s team isn’t all that interested in pursuing that goal.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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